Brimming with nutrients, antiooxidants and healthy fats, avocado – otherwise known as nature's butter – carries a multitude of health benefits inside its coarse, leathery skin. But new research is now pointing to what could be its most valuable secret yet. A Canadian scientist has discovered a lipid in avocado that could prove key to battling leukemia by attacking the deadly disease at its core, namely the highly resilient stem cells that drive the disease and make treating it such a difficult task.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a type of cancer where blood stem cells evolve into abnormal blood cells, rather than the healthy cells the body would normally produce. These then build up in the bone marrow and crowd out the healthy cells, leading to infection and often death.

Professor Paul Spagnuolo from Canada's University of Waterloo believes that the disease can be best combated at its core. He managed to identify a compound in avocado, called Avocatin B, which is precise in its targeting of the leukemia stem cells, and can be applied without causing peripheral damage to the surrounding cells.

"The stem cell is really the cell that drives the disease," says Spagnuolo. "The stem cell is largely responsible for the disease developing and it’s the reason why so many patients with leukemia relapse. We’ve performed many rounds of testing to determine how this new drug works at a molecular level and confirmed that it targets stem cells selectively, leaving healthy cells unharmed."

Spagnuolo's work is still in its very early stages and he estimates Avocatin B-inspired leukemia medication to be years away from approval for human use. But he says it could one day greatly improve the quality of life and life expectancy for those suffering from AML. At present he is carrying out experiments with a view to preparing a drug for Phase I clinical trials.

The research was published in the journal Cancer Research.

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